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Parental school choice, the past is prologue

Earlier this month, applications opened for two of North Carolina’s three private school scholarship programs. Parents of thousands of low-income and special needs children are now applying for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program or new Education Savings Account. For school choice advocates, it is a singular and celebratory moment: Never before has North Carolina offered more educational options to families needing them most.

Years in the making, these accomplishments have been guided by two core commitments: ensuring that programs fulfill a clear purpose, and that they are responsive to the needs of families.  These commitments have also shaped the work of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), the parental school choice advocacy organization I helped found in 2005—an organization that pushed for measures benefiting families today.

Moving forward, my work will continue to be guided by these commitments, but I will complement, rather than lead, PEFNC’s efforts. Beginning March 1, I will become National Director for State Teams and Political Strategy for the American Federation for Children (AFC). AFC promotes sound, sustainable school choice policies nationwide that empower parents to choose the school best suited to their child’s needs.

It is vitally important work, undergirded by these same commitments. Why is building on these commitments critical, here and elsewhere? A decade of successful reforms in North Carolina points the way. Consider that in 2005, North Carolina had no private school scholarship programs; a legislative cap restricted charter school growth to 100 schools statewide. In 2011, lawmakers removed the cap—expanding innovation and serving families needing a nontraditional public option. North Carolina has since experienced nearly 75% growth in public charter schools; these schools now enroll over 100,000 students. And when you include those parents who seek to homeschool their children, the total number of parents seeking to educate their children non-traditionally in our state nears 330,000.

A sense of purpose and responsiveness to families also shaped the creation of North Carolina’s private school scholarship programs. In 2011, lawmakers established a tax credit for families of special needs students, later converted to the Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grant. This year, the grant is providing nearly 1,100 special needs students with educational alternatives.  

In 2013, lawmakers created the Opportunity Scholarship Program, enabling low-income children to access private school scholarships of up to $4,200. Again, the program’s need and purpose were clear: Many of these children were assigned, because of their address, to the state’s lowest-performing public schools; their families lacked the means to enroll them elsewhere. This fall, over 10,000 low-income students will be allowed to attend private schools using Opportunity Scholarships – and the demand for this program has never been stronger with nearly 2,500 families submitted applications within the first week of the program’s application period.  

Mindful of parental need, lawmakers voted in 2016 to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program by $10 million annually over a decade. This summer they locked in funding expansion, creating an additional 2,000 scholarships annually.

Yet parents of children with more severe disabilities still had critical unmet needs. Lawmakers thus established a third scholarship program, the Special Needs Education Savings Account (ESA), in 2017. The ESA provides families with up to $9,000 annually to cover educational expenses for specials needs children. Already, families have submitted over 250 applications for the estimated 330 scholarships available in 2018-2019.

At every juncture, PEFNC and other school choice supporters promoted these measures, ensuring their purpose was clear and that they focused, first, on families. Each measure garnered bipartisan support, proof positive that parents and purposeful policies can indeed trump politics.

What lies ahead? These successes set the stage for what is yet to come. Surely, individual efforts to advance parental school choice will evolve as the future unfolds. But a shared commitment to prioritizing families’ needs and pushing for purpose-driven policies? That remains unchanged. Parents and children, in North Carolina and across the nation, are counting on it.

Darrell Allison

Darrell Allison has served as the founding president of PEFNC since 2005 and will become the National Director of State Teams and Political Strategy for American Federation for Children beginning March 1st.